Biden Can Make Up for Obama’s Libya Neglect

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Libyan military commander Gen. Khalifa Haftar in Benghazi, Dec. 24, 2020.


esam omran al-fetori/Reuters

President Obama’s biggest regret, he told “Fox News Sunday” in 2016, was “failing to plan for the day after” the 2011 intervention in Libya, which toppled dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

Joe Biden

has a chance to make amends.

Largely forgotten by the U.S. and its allies, Libya has become a center of human trafficking and the source of a migrant crisis in Europe. It has suffered from a decade of civil strife and fractured leadership. Its oil reserves, Africa’s richest, are at risk of coming under Turkish and Russian control. The solution: free and fair elections and the removal of all foreign forces.

Libya effectively has two governments. Russia supports the eastern one, led by the Libyan National Army, the country’s only unified force, under the command of

Gen. Khalifa Haftar.

In the west, militias, some Islamist in character, fight among themselves when they aren’t fighting Gen. Haftar.

Turkey’s military, seeking to ensure access to the Mediterranean Sea for energy exploration, backs the western Islamist militias. In April, President

Recep Tayyip Erdogan

said Ankara and Libya’s western Government of National Accord were committed to a 2019 maritime demarcation in the eastern Mediterranean. The agreement directly threatens a January 2020 energy deal between Israel and Greece. The latter doesn’t want Mr. Erdogan to have further influence around its shores. An uneasy cease-fire has held in Libya since October, but both Turkey and Russia are reinforcing by building air and naval bases.

The U.S. has largely stayed out of Libyan affairs since the 2012 Benghazi debacle. But Washington can take responsibility by insisting on free and fair elections. “We’d like the U.S. to remove all foreign forces in Libya, and we hope the U.S. will pressure all groups in Libya to make sure the elections in December will take place,” says

Abdulhadi Soliman,

spokesman for the Fezzan Libya Organization, a nonprofit based in the southwestern part of the country.

The U.S. should be prepared to accept the outcome if elections prove fair. Although Gen. Haftar’s army has been condemned by much of the international community, a series of opinion polls by the U.S. Agency for International Development find that it is consistently the country’s most popular institution, winning support from more than 60% of Libyans. But he is detested by western militiamen, and is also known to consort with extremists. His military includes many Salafists backed by Saudi Arabia.

A good first step would be for Congress to pass the Libya Stabilization Act, which the House Foreign Affairs Committee approved in April. It would authorize the president to impose sanctions on any foreigner providing significant support to a militia or paramilitary group that threatens peace, exploits assets or natural resources, or violates human rights in Libya.

Washington should also use its relations with Qatar and the United Arab Emirates to pressure them to end their proxy fight in Libya. Qatar backs the western government and Islamist militias associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, and has an extensive media outreach in the West to advance its interests. The U.A.E. has given money to the eastern government and Gen. Haftar’s army.

Mr. Biden shouldn’t repeat Mr. Obama’s mistake, but the election is his opportunity to help clean up the mess the U.S. left a decade ago.

Ms. Bocchi is the Journal’s Joseph A. Rago Fellow.

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Appeared in the July 14, 2021, print edition as ‘Biden Can Make Up For Obama’s Libya Neglect.’

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